Google Books as index

This is going to be blindingly obvious to probably about 90% of my readers, but to the 10%1 for whom it isn’t, it might be a bit of useful knowledge.

I was teaching a class last week that focused primarily on print sources, and I was showing the students a selection of the books that had been put on reserve for their course.  One of the students asked, “are any of these books, or the other resources for this class, available online?”

Good question!

So I popped over to Google Books and showed them how many of the reserve books were online, but in “limited preview” or “snippet view” only.  One book, published in 1926, was out of copyright and therefore available in all its cover-to-cover glory.  So this was an enlightening diversion into the legal and economic ramifications of Google Books.

But one of the features (er, bugs, really) of some of the mid-20th-century books that this particular professor had put on reserve was their abysmal, or nonexistent, indexes.  Since the students would be combing through them looking for references to very specific items and issues, the lack of indexes was going to be a significant stumbling block for them.2

Enter Google Books as index. Side-by-side with the print edition, search Google Books for the term you’re interested in, and even if the book is only available in snippet view, you still get the page references for where that term is mentioned. And, even better than a back-of-the-book index, you can see the immediate context for the term, which will help you sort through all the references and see which ones are most relevant to your needs.

Like I said, this is probably blindingly obvious to most, but it was the first time I’d put two and two together to articulate this use of Google Books, and it was clearly news to the faculty member I was working with, as well.



  1. That would be, what, about 1/2 of a reader?
  2. Not to mention students’ general lack of understanding of the existence, purpose, and use of indexes.